It's crazy-hard to find a decent, available contractor — but word of mouth is still your best bet

Some homeowners seek out home improvement. Others have home improvement thrust upon them.

Take last November, for example, when a windstorm toppled a tree smack-dab onto the roof of one of the homes Steve Corker rents out. Corker had little choice but to find a roofing contractor who had the time to replace nearly 30 percent of the roof.

"It almost took us four weeks to find a roofer," Corker says.

In the meantime, to prevent rain from leaking into the tenant's apartment, all they could do was put up a tarp and wait.

It's not like Corker doesn't have connections. He's the president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest. But with a portfolio of only four apartment units and 14 homes, it's nearly impossible to find a full-time handyman on call.

"Most of the contractors won't touch us with a 10-foot pole," Corker says. "We're not big enough. They want to work on big projects."

And so like most homeowners or small-time landlords in Spokane who need work done on their property, Corker is at the mercy of a brutally tight market where getting a subcontractor in the door means sitting on a waitlist for ages.

Just finding someone to upgrade a window, he says, took four months.

"Right now, there's just a lack of qualified craftsmen," Corker says. "We're just screaming for people in the industry to do the work."

Combined with the skyrocketing cost of construction materials, the dearth of available craftsmen can turn a simple home improvement project into a long and pricey nightmare.

HELP WANTED

On one hand, it's great to be in the construction business right now. Garrett Sebright, a carpenter with Garrett Construction Service, says he's booked out an entire year.

"I don't advertise or do anything," Sebright says. "It's all word of mouth."

Yet most contractors who rely on subcontractors are running into the same frustrations as they try to seek out plumbers, electricians and other skilled laborers for their projects.

William Morin, a contractor who runs Morin Construction, says it can feel impossible to find ceramic tile setters or "a good drywall guy right now."

Even before COVID, Spokane had already been struggling with a construction labor problem. A few years ago the froth from the surging Seattle and Portland housing markets overflowed into Spokane, ending years of low rents and low home prices.

But Joel White, executive officer at the Spokane Home Builders Association, says that the pool of construction laborers still hasn't been replenished after many left the region — or the industry — after the 2008 recession.

White, like many observers, thought that COVID might have sparked another housing crash. But that's not what happened. The coronavirus didn't devastate the construction trade — it supercharged it.

While the initial lockdowns froze construction projects for a few months, that just gave more time for demand to build up.

Stay-at-home orders, it turned out, just made people want to fix up the home they're staying in.

"People being stuck in home, stimulus checks — maybe they're able to get stuff done around the house they've been planning for years," Morin says. But it's one thing to have the intention to rehab your house. It's another to find someone to help you do it, at a time when everyone has the same goal.

"If you don't know somebody, you're going to call them, and you're not going to get a call back right now."

WOOD ON FIRE

The availability of labor isn't the only problem dogging the home improvement projects. The price of construction supplies — particularly wood — has surged to ridiculous levels.

"A sheet of oriented strand board has tripled if not quadrupled in price," Sebright says.

Take it from Karl Ziegler, executive officer of Spokane's beloved regional building supply store chain Ziggy's.

"Lumber prices are high right now — unrealistically high," he says.

During the last week of January, he says, the composite price of 1,000 square feet of plywood was around $861 — a $16 increase from the week before.

Last year at the same time? It was $339.

"It started with the COVID shutdown," Ziegler says. "All the do-it-yourselfers came out of the woodwork, wanting to rebuild their decks and paint their houses and do roofs and fences."

Simultaneously, the shutdown brought the lumber supply chain, already hobbled by Canadian trade tariffs, to a screeching halt. Mills and factories shut down or reduced their output, he says — some to avoid infecting their workers and others because they wanted to upgrade or retool.

Once the shutdown was lifted, both average Tim Taylor types and professional contractors were competing for lumber, even as the size of the lumber pile had been whittled down.

Wood was the toilet paper of hardware stores. Every building supplier across the country saw shelves get stripped bare.

"In the summer of 2020, we were some of the only guys who had product," Ziegler says. Builders and contractors of all sizes, he says, were driving extreme distances just to shop at his inventory. "We had people from Colorado, from Eastern Montana. We've got people from Portland and Northern California."

But he wanted to focus on serving customers, not visitors. Ziggy's put restrictions on how much any one customer could buy.

"It's not just a shortage on lumber, it's a shortage on everything," he says. "If you have the product in stock, somebody is going to try to buy you out."

The price spiked the most on wood, but the costs of building supplies across the board increased by 10 to 15 percent.

"It's on roofing. It's on nails," Ziegler says. "It's on wire. It's on copper pipe."

In other words, sometimes it's not the contractor who screws you on the price. Sometimes it's the screws themselves.

"There's guys who want to do a quality job and a fair price, and it's all coming back on the consumer," Sebright says.

KNOW A GUY

Not every contractor, of course, offers a quality job for a fair price. And when people are desperate, it's easy to get taken advantage of, Morin warns.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF GARRETT SEBRIGHT
Courtesy of Garrett Sebright

"They think, 'I'll just call such and such and trust they'll do a good job and do a good price,'" says Morin. "But they'll not do a good job and won't do a good price."

Everyone in the construction business has horror stories about botched bathroom floors, half-completed projects and shoddy tile work.

"Certain companies are notorious," Morin says.

Sebright knows the jokes well. From memory, he recites the scene from the Naked Gun, where the love interest asks the villain, "How could you do something so vicious?" and he responds, "It was easy, my dear. You forget I spent two years as a building contractor."

Sure, there are websites like Angie's List and HomeAdvisor where you can find contractors. But everyone the Inlander spoke with preferred word of mouth: To avoid a bad experience, find people who've had good ones. Ask people you trust to recommend people they've worked with before.

In the Five Mile Prairie area, Corker says, the message board of the neighborhood social media network Nextdoor is filled with these sorts of contractor referral inquiries.

"Every day they say: Who can do fences? Who can do roofs?" Corker says. "Who can put a water heater in?"

And if all else fails, there's the old-fashioned technique. Knock on the door. Driving around town, Corker keeps his eye out for impressive paint jobs or nice new fences, and if he needs one put up himself, he's not afraid to walk up and ask.

Last summer, Corker spotted a particularly nice deck. So he walked up to the landlord in the front yard, who was more than happy to put him in to touch with the craftsman who built it. There was just one problem.

"'I'd love to do something for you,'" Corker says the deck-build told him then. "He said, 'We can't do it this summer."

And so, as has happened many times before, Corker was put on a waiting list. ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...